The philosopher Michel Foucault taught that sexual repression and taboos aren’t so much the repression of sex but instead evidence of obsession. I’m reminded of this lesson after reading about a terrible story wherein a Georgia high-school decides to make a presentation to hundreds of students and parents on what not to do on social media. In doing so, they project a photo of one student in her bikini, an image taken from her Facebook page [she says shared with ‘friends of friends’] without her permission. Her face is not blurred; in fact, her full name is printed below the image. Her photo, indeed, her body itself, is being projected to all these people as ‘what not to do’, her image and body construed as a problem, how one should not present themselves in 2013. Humiliated by the school’s disrespectful and irresponsible behavior, the woman is suing. In trying to warn students of the dangers of posting online, the Georgia high-school acted in exactly the dangerous way students—everyone—shouldn’t act.
Foucault might say this presentation, ostensibly about teaching modesty, is a fixation on this woman’s body, projected and blown up, to be morally dissected by eyes not dismissive of but consumed by sex. So obsessed with young women’s sexuality, the school becomes preoccupied on the women in the photos, echoing that now familiar refrain that shames and blames the victims of privacy violations instead of focusing on the violators.
A School attorney has responded, quoted from the story linked to above as saying that he “finds it perplexing that someone is suing for millions for a picture she herself posted on the internet.”
In this logic, just posting anything to anyone, a basic fact of life in 2013, means you have no right to the content being spread beyond intent; and those who spread it without permission have no responsibility. I’ve written about why this common victim-blaming approach to social photos is wrong a couple of times, on the Girls Around Me app and on a series of news stories about women being threatened with nude photos. And that’s what’s happening here.
The school’s motive is to make sure students (girls) know that posting photos of themselves in swimsuits is dangerous and wrong. The photos can get out further than you think they will. To make that point abundantly clear, the school went ahead and did just this itself, taking this one photo to make an example of and shame a particular woman. This is just one more example of the worthlessness of the common victim-blaming approach to digital discretion.
Instead, the biggest problem that people–especially young people, especially girls–face when it comes to sharing photos is that their peers–especially boys–too often share those photos beyond what was consented to. Schools, especially the attorney quoted above, seem to take a “boys-will-be-boys” approach and instead shame girls from something as banal as having a photograph in a bathing suit. That photo is only risqué to the degree that a school would knowingly take it well beyond its intended audience. This isn’t a lesson about not taking swimsuit photos, it’s a lesson on why you should be careful not to shame and embarrass other people for simply having a body and happening to be a woman who is alive in 2013.
Managing one’s privacy is important, but what I want to see much, much more of is school’s focusing on acknowledging and taking seriously the management, and care, of other’s privacy. To stop insisting that a social problem (sexism) is a personal problem to be solved by the victims. The school chose to send a message that emphasized managing only one’s own privacy without regard for others and what harm and humiliation can be done by sharing photographs beyond intent.
The school has set a terrible precedent by doing precisely what they should be telling their students to avoid; ironically, all in the name of setting a good example. If someone should be pulled aside and made an example of, it isn’t the women being told to cover up but instead this school and others like it that think it’s okay to share an image beyond its intended audience. The focus should be on those who abuse consent, who violate privacy, instead of those being shamed for simply living their life—perhaps a tall order for a culture exhibiting such a paternalistic, “proactive”, Foucauldian obsession with young women’s sexuality.